Dec. 8, 2004 - Moments before setting off on two grueling practice laps around the Marana Middle School track, Brittany Vaughn and Chrissy Kellerman are all smiles.
The two eighth graders joke about the different methods they've seen used to steal a couple of precious seconds and catch a few extra breaths between laps. The two agree through their giggles that the best they've seen is the "old bend over and re-tie the shoelace" trick.
"You won't be smiling when you come across the finish," bellows David Barnes, the girl's personal trainer and head cross country coach at Marana Middle School. "It's good that you're smiling now."
Mere minutes later, Barnes is the one smiling as both girls streak across the finish line, having shaved five seconds off their previous time.
Although the middle school cross country season ended Oct. 1, Vaughn and Kellerman are still burning up the school's track two to three times a week under Barnes' tutelage.
The workouts, as grueling as they are, are not only paying off, but will come to fruition Dec. 11 when Vaughn, 14, competes as the No. 1 runner from Arizona in the Youth 13 through14 age bracket at the U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics Cross Country National Champio-nships in Chicago.
It wasn't until this year, her second in the sport, that Vaughn began to thrive as a runner.
"I never even dreamed of being a runner in the first place," said Vaughn, "but then I tried track and my coach said 'let's see how you do in 400 (meters)' and I beat everyone in my class. Then I started going up (in distance)."
On a good day Vaughn and Barnes estimate her top average for running a mile is about six minutes and 20 seconds.
"I always wanted to be a great athlete," Vaughn said between laps and breaths. "I always wanted to show people I can be that (a great athlete) too."
After transferring to the Marana school from Coronado Middle School this year, Vaughn led the Falcons' girls team to a unblemished record in the school's six meets. But it's been her effort after the cross country regular season ended that has the diminutive eighth grader lapping her competition.
With the aid of her running partner, Kellerman, the duo consistently placed in the top four in every major race they competed in this season.
At the Rattler Invitational, Oct. 6, at Mountain View High School, Vaughn and Kellerman finished fourth and third respectively. At Los Mesquites, Sept. 27, Kellerman placed fourth to Vaughn's second while at the Old Pueblo Invite, Oct. 16, Vaughn's first place finish edged out her running mate who took second.
"She hates to lose," said Barnes of Vaughn.
To earn a spot at the Junior Olympics, Vaughn first had to fend off runners from all over the Grand Canyon State.
Latrisha Blackstar, a seventh grader from Page, has become Vaughn's unofficial rival when it comes to competing for the state's top spot. At the Arizona Junior Olympics State Meet Vaughn finished second behind Blackstar. Although Barnes insists there is no direct hatred or rivalry between the two, Blackstar has consistently been nipping at the heels of Vaughn, and vice versa.
Vaughn bested Blackstar next time out at the Junior Olympics Regional Meet in El Paso, Texas, earning the distinction as Arizona's No. 1 runner for the Junior Olympics, despite finishing 16th.
What is remarkable about Vaughn's endurance is the fact that the 14-year-old has only been running for two years. She attributes her strength and durability to the years she has spent riding bikes at Manzanita BMX bicycle racing track in South Tucson.
Annually ranking in the top three in her respective age brackets, Vaughn estimates that she's been riding BMX at Manzanita since she was 6 years old. It also doesn't hurt that her aunt and uncle, Julie and Kirk Vaughn, own Manzanita BMX.
When it comes to training now, Vaughn still gets her stamina via the bicycle by keeping pace with her father as the two scour all the Northwest has to offer.
"Sometimes he has to slow down," said Vaughn of running along side her father on his bike over the mountains and through the washes where they train, "and sometimes he has to speed up."
Both Vaughn and Kellerman will run straight into high school next fall when the eighth graders are leaning toward attending Mountain View. There they would bolster an already strong Mountain Lion girls team that finished fourth in the state this year ahead of Salpointe and behind Class 5A Champs Flowing Wells.
For now, all the preparation with Kellerman, who finished seven places from qualifying for the national meet, is geared toward the Junior Olympics.
The recent cold spell that swept over Pima County may be a blessing in disguise for Vaughn as she prepares to make the trip to Chicago. Every year a different region hosts the Junior Olympics; this year it's the Midwest. Unfortunately for the warm-blooded Marana runner, this year's event will be held in the "Windy City," a metropolis notorious for its arctic-like winters.
When asked which she prefers to run in, warm or cold weather, Vaughn answers with an emphatic "hot" before the question is even completed.
"The cold throws my breathing off," she said.
If Vaughn's breathing is on, the eighth grader believes she can finish in the top 25 at the Junior Olympics. In doing so, she will be named an All-American in her age bracket.
"She thinks she can do it," said Barnes of Vaughn's ambitions to place in the top 25.